How to find the right harness for your dog?

Sleddog sports are getting more and more popular, especially canicross (which is running with a dog that pulls you), and newcomers can find it difficult to find the right harness for their dogs. I see way too many not suitable solutions, and many times even the people, who have been doing the sport for a while choose the wrong size for their dogs.

There are many brands and models on the market, so it can be very confusing to decide which one would be the best for your canine partner. As all dogs are different I also cannot say one harness that is the best and fits all, but I hope I can give you some guidelines with this post to make the right decision.

Let me start with the importance of having a proper harness. I hear many people saying, that since they are only doing canicross (or other sleddog sports, but I want to focus on canicross) as a hobby, it is fine to run in collar or with the harness they are using for walking. Let me ask you a question: do you run in sandals? Or in the first shoe you’ve found at home? No. You usually buy a running shoe. Not necessarily the most expensive model, but something that was designed for this activity. So why wouldn’t you do the same with your canine running companion?

If your dog pulls in his collar, it can be very bad for its health. If your dog runs in its walking harness, how do you expect him to pull while training, but walk on a loose leash when just taking a walk? Having separate equipment for training can help your dog understand, that while wearing that it may pull you. Not to mention, that walking harnesses (as their name also says) is not designed for running. You have to make sure the equipment you are using for training is a comfortable one, so running and pulling will be a good experience, and not an activity accompanied by pain, rubbing, choking, etc.

I hope by here you understood why you need a proper harness, so now I can try to talk about how to choose the right one.

In general I would say, that one has to stay away from harnesses where the front strap comes horizontal across the chest, because it restricts the movement of the front legs. For running activities I would recommend harnesses, where the front strap runs between the front legs, looking like a Y if you check from the front.

This strap, that runs between the legs should not be too wide, so that it is not rubbing the legs, but also should fit your dog’s chest, so it does not ride up causing bruises on the dog’s armpits.

The harness should be padded at least around the neck, on the chest and on the straps that are running under the dog’s leg, on the areas where there will be pressure on the dog’s body when it is pulling.

Still, there are many different harnesses that fit the description above, so choosing the right one is not easy. Let’s go through a few common and a few popular models on the market to make it a bit clearer what they were designed for.

One of the most popular harnesses among people that are doing sleddog sports is the classical X-back harness, almost all brands have one. It’s my personal favourite, even though it was originally designed for low pulling point activities (so when the dog is pulling a sled for example). It’s a typical all-rounder, you can see athletes using it for skijöring, canicrossing, bikejöring, hiking… Pretty much everything.

It’s a good choice if your dog is pulling or at least runs in front of you, but if your canine companion prefers to run beside your legs it is pointless to get a harness like this in my opinion.

Next I would like to talk about some harnesses specifically. I wanted to talk in general in this post, but there are three quite special harnesses, that are very popular on the market, so I decided to name them.

When it comes to higher pulling points, such as bikejöring, scooter or canicross, many people prefer the Freemotion model of Non-stop dogwear. It’s one of the most popular harnesses, used by several top athletes.

The angle of the harness is different compared to the X-back harnesses, which makes it more suitable for categories, where the line is attached above the dog’s height (high pulling point). The same brand has another harness, called Combined harness, which is pretty much the same as the Freemotion, except that it’s red and has a stiffer neck part. It was designed for pulka (an on-snow category), but can be easily used for dryland sports too. The length of the back part and the side straps are adjustable, which makes it possible to fit this harness to various dogs.

Another model I want to name is Zero DC’s Faster harness, as this you can also see on many dogs at competitions. At first glance it looks similar to an X-back, but here the whole back is free and the neck part is round (on most harnesses it is diamond shaped). The “holes” for the front legs are also rounder than on an x-back harness. It is also used as all rounder, from canicross to sledding, although Zero Dc is recommending it for high pulling points activities.

The third model I would like to talk a bit about is the Dragrattan Multisport harness. It is a popular choice among people, whose dog backs out of their harness sometimes, as it has a belly strap, that does not allow that to happen. It is also responsible for helping the harness stay in place even if the dog slows down or goes to the side.

The back part of this harness is adjustable and it was also designed for high pulling point activities.

Canicross is about your dog pulling you, but there are many cases, when the dog is not the hardest working one, likes to occasionally jog by your heel or run with a loose line. For these dogs I would recommend a half harness (a harness, that ends in the middle/first half of the back and not at the end of the tail), which will stay in place even if your partner runs beside you, but will be comfortable, if it wants to pull. I also changed my oldest dog’s X-back to a half harness, since he decided he will retire and stop pulling most of the time. It was a good decision, we are both very happy about it!

One more model worth mentioning, because I see more and more people using it, is the spreader bar harness. It looks very similar to the ones that dogs are using for weight pulling and keeps the load off the dog’s hip part. It is however only suitable for activities, where the pulling point is really low and the dog is pulling a heavier load, otherwise the bar will hit the dog’s rear legs. Not at all suitable and recommended for high pulling point activities.

It is important to find a model that is suitable for your dog and the activities that you do, but the most important is to find the right size. I see extremely many people with oversized harnesses, mostly when it was “personalised”, because it is hard to measure your dog correctly, especially if you’re not familiar with harnesses yet. People also tend to go “safe” with buying a bit bigger equipment for their dog, but just like a size bigger shoe is uncomfortable for you, it is not good for your canine friend either.

So what is the right size?

Once the harness is on the dog you should be able to put two fingers under the neck part. If you cannot, it is too tight, if you can fit more, then it is too big. Harnesses, that are oversized here can restrict movement and can limit the lung expansion too.

On the side of the dog the harness should lay on the ribs, never below the last rib, because then it cuts in when the dog is pulling, make running very uncomfortable for it.

Most harnesses (but it depends a lot on the model) should end at the bottom of the dog’s tail when the dog is pulling, so don’t worry if it’s a bit higher up when you put it on the dog first. Always make sure to check how the harness is laying on the dog’s body, when it is being pulled from the behind (you don’t have to go training, just make someone hold your dog while you’re calling it).

I believe that no matter what level your aiming for, proper equipment is a must and since your dog cannot talk you have to make sure you find the right harness for it. Take into consideration what you’ve just read here and pay attention to your dog’s body language to get some feedback.

Best of luck in finding the right model and size!

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